57

I am a PhD student in mechE. After paying the first year tuition out of pocket, I accepted a PhD project due to desperation for funding. However, after an year I realized that I hate the project. Here I made a mistake of not leaving/changing the project, I just waited out hoping I would like the project. I also asked my advisor a couple for a different project and he did not want to change my project due to sponsor obligations. For some reason I couldn’t assert myself and stayed on. However my hate for the project only grew with time and now I am in my fifth year. I have reached a stage where I absolutely hate the project and don’t know what to do. I can hardly do any work. I feel like quitting everyday and still feel it is wrong to quit this late. I have a very substandard thesis. I am lost and feel stuck, please advise on what to do. Thanks

| improve this question | | | | |
  • 10
    If there is somebody you personally like and respect to talk to, that might be a good thing. – puppetsock Feb 5 at 22:46
  • 2
  • 4
    Why did you accept an answer so soon (in six hours) for such an important life problem? I'm shocked! – MarkDBlackwell Feb 7 at 15:42
  • Could looking at the synonyms of hate (for example thesaurus.com/browse/hate) help you describe your feelings better? Often our feelings come in a bundle of unresolved internal and external conflicts (see several good answers below) and words can help you find ways out of the mist or, at a minimum, recognize opportunities in the others' suggestions – XavierStuvw Feb 8 at 20:32
  • Thanks for answering the question everyone, I appreciate it and did not expect such an overwhelming response. – user050220 Feb 10 at 0:23

10 Answers 10

88

DISCLAIMER

I serve as a mental health 1st aid officer at my school. I received basic mental health training but I AM NOT A PSYCHOLOGIST. During this role, I have assisted many PhD students going through the same dilemma.


PROBLEM

I totally sympathise with you. One thing to consider, however, is whether you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed. PhD is a long and tough journey. The more you know the more you know you don't know. This is normal. This is OK. During a journey, the candidate suffers a lot, and many teeny tiny triggers can accumulate very quickly into pushing any PhD student over the edge. Some personal issues do contribute to the stress as well. Writing anxiety, home sickness, work-life balance and upsetting news overhyped in the media are all factors that can manifest into feeling insignificant and depressed.

I noticed you are working in mechanical engineering (last year). A common case I witnessed with engineers, is that they enjoy the technical work more than anything else (a.k.a writing). Building cool stuff or writing a fascinating and concise piece of computer software is just euphoric. There is a chance that you experience these feelings because writing is due. There is also a chance that you feel the thesis is sub-standard because you wanted to go back and build new cool things. Basically, you need your euphoric fix.


ADVICE

My advice to you is not to rush. Buy yourself some time to figure out what the root cause is. You can consult a therapist or a life coach (you should have access to this service via your university). There are few steps to rewire your behaviour into accommodating the current inconvenience until you finish.

  1. Take some time off (1 week would do). Just treat yourself in doing what you love. No work stuff. Play video games, travel, read poetry, etc. Whatever makes you happy.

  2. Do not feel guilty for wasting a week not working and do not let anyone to make you feel guilty about it. You needed this time off. The project needed you to take this time off.

  3. Go back to your thesis with a fresh attitude (not feeling guilty or late).

  4. If you are experiencing the same feelings and still thinking about quitting. List the cool research or engineering ideas you would rather do instead of working on that project you hate. Pick one that takes N days and do it (don't work on weekends). Maybe you just need that euphoric fix. Set N=4.

  5. Go back to your thesis again. If you still hate it, this time work on the project for at least 5-N days.

  6. Repeat from 2 with N=N-1.


IMPORTANT THINGS TO NOTE

a. Your post-grad degree is just that. A degree. You have your entire life ahead of you after you finish.

b. The steps I listed above are from my supervision experience. While I consulted with a psychologist in designing these steps, they do work on case by case basis and are not scientifically tested. Think of these steps as a life hack.

c. If you feel like not getting from bed in the morning for two days in a row, seek medical help. It is probably nothing or just a dietary deficiency but you better check.

d. If you are an international student, explore the possibility that you may be feeling homesick. Do not get defensive or shy to admit it. It is real and it happens to almost everyone.

e. I am not advocating sticking in a program that does not work for you. There is no shame in quitting. However, if you are quitting I advise you to do it for the right reasons. Please be careful of the legal consequences, if any. Also please consider the career interruption period (5 years) on your CV.

| improve this answer | | | | |
  • 1
    This is a fantastic answer and I think it answers the question I raised here: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/143820/… – user97709 Feb 5 at 20:54
  • 1
    I don't consider a stopped PhD is a "career interruption". You gained a lot of experience doing the things you do: research, taking control of your own project, writing technical papers (if succeeding at it), teaching (if included). Downside: if you don't finish you don't have a diploma to prove it, but you can explain. It not like 'the road to a phd' has no value. But then again I'm not an employer. I myself am also considering to stop a PhD after 3 years, but I ended up with a severe burnout and anxiety attacks. Sometimes quitting prevents from getting into a worse situation. – JHBonarius Feb 6 at 13:00
  • 2
    In the advice, what's the lower bound for N? – Daniel R. Collins Feb 6 at 15:20
  • 1
    Good point. I usually set N=1. Always allow students one day for the fun stuff. By the time we approach submission deadline, it will resort to N=0 eventually. But then, the student will do that willingly. – Mo Hossny Feb 6 at 15:36
  • 2
    One point you make is crucial: writing is hard, unfamiliar work to us engineering/science types. Writer's block is very real, an extremely painful. Add that for example the solution to a particular equation was cornerstone in my undergraduate thesis, and by the time of writing down (neglected for way too long) I had fogotten how, took me two weeks to derive it again. So write from the beginning. Write down everything. That way, if you are bored/blocked of writing, go doe some experiments, edit earlier writing, go to the library, summarize new stuff (needed for your "state of the art" chapter!) – vonbrand Feb 6 at 18:06
16

The important question at this point is, how close you are to finishing? Fifth year sounds like right at the end to me. I agree, that if you feel this stuck (everyone has such a phase at some point, but yours sounds more severe), you should cut your losses. But the best way to cut your losses at this point might just be to hand in a mediocre thesis. After all, one way to get rid of the project is to simply finish it.

But in any case, think about why you want that PhD in the first place. If you just want it to get a better job in the industry, quitting it is definitely not the end of the world. You might not get your dream position, but as a mechanical engineer you won't end up unemployed even with just a Bachelor's degree. If you really want to do research, just not on this topic, then I fear the only way is forward. Without a PhD, opportunities are rare and at this point you are unlikely to find any funding for another five years to start a new PhD on a different topic. Think of the few more months of hardship as the price of admission. It might feel like hell, but it will be over at some point.

And finally if you feel like things are getting to much out of hand, don't hesitate to consult a professional. Even just talking through the details with a therapist might be incredibly helpful in ordering your thoughts and keep you from taking any rash decision, one way or another, which you might regret later.

| improve this answer | | | | |
  • 3
    The question can be: is your dream position a position you actually want. I always wanted independence to make my own decisions. But there is no job at which can make all the decisions. Plus I am realizing I actually cannot handle the responsibilities. So the dream job I was aiming for is actually probably not suited for me. I'm now considering quitting and returning to industy, doing a simple job learning to accept that I don't have control over all decisions. – JHBonarius Feb 6 at 12:56
6

I think one important point is being missed here.

There's the project, and there's the thesis.

These are really two separate issues, but that is often forgotten. If you're not satisfied with your thesis (whatever state it is in), it is entirely up to you if and how you wanna proceed with that. There might be expectations from other people, but no one can force you to get a PhD.

The project on the other hand is a very different animal. By signing a contract you agreed to do a certain job. Getting a PhD is not part of that job, but lots of other things are.

So my advice would be to try and separate these in your head (and in your emotional state). If you hate the project, then from now on it's just an uninteresting (but time-limited!) contract you have to finish. You do the work, you get paid. That's it.

As for the thesis, once you manage to emotionally and intellectually decouple that from the job, you might find salvageable material in there. Maybe set it aside for a while, forget about it, get some distance. Then look at it again later, you might see new things in it from a fresh perspective. Always remember that no time is ever truly wasted. Everything is a learning experience, particularly those things that feel like failure initially.

| improve this answer | | | | |
  • 2
    Oh, one more thing. You might be in an overall mental state that qualifies as some degree of depression ("can hardly do any work" etc.). So on that account it may also be advisable to speak to a mental health professional. – Victor Mataré Feb 5 at 17:49
  • In most cases, the advisor signed a contract with the project. He (or she) should be involved enough that they can easily transition if a student leaves, if that's not the case, well, it's poor planning on their part but not a reason for a student to stay. – user2699 Feb 6 at 23:43
  • Well sure, formally it's just a job you can simply quit according to laws & terms. But a researcher in the middle of a scientific project isn't someone you can simply replace. And that's definitely NOT (primarily) because of poor planning (really a preposterous claim). It's because that person will have accumulated huge amounts of tacit knowledge that is close to impossible to transfer to a newcomer. And I'm not even mentioning the incredible overhead in transferring the little knowledge that is in fact transferrable. – Victor Mataré Feb 6 at 23:49
  • 1
    That's true of most jobs, especially with skilled employees, and yet people quit and life goes on. I agree with the overall point of this answer though - it's good to separate the thesis from other work that needs to be done. – user2699 Feb 7 at 0:20
4

I think you should talk to your advisor and try to figure out concrete, achievable roadmap to finishing. Most of the time when I was feeling what you are describing in grad school, it was because I wasn't getting anything done, I didn't know what my next step would be, and it felt like treading water-- slowly exhausting myself without making progress towards the shore.

Your advisor will understand. We all hate our work sometimes. You don't like doing this project and you'd like to stop. There are two paths out of that, quitting or finishing. Plan your final push and start checking off the boxes that lead to freedom.

| improve this answer | | | | |
3

It is never too late to quit. It is better for you to avoid wasting more time and also for the funder because other candidates could be able to work in your position more effectively. If you are completely sure that you do not possess the enthusiasm required for this topic and you are still not even close to obtaining the PhD. degree, just leave.

However, in some cases depending on the contract, the students might be obliged to recover the funding in case of an unsuccessful research period. This is a tougher situation, but in either case, you should communicate your problem with your supervisor and funder, and you need to work it out together to minimize both your and the funder's losses.

| improve this answer | | | | |
  • 4
    students might be obliged to recover the funding in case of an unsuccessful research period — Really? That's insane. – JeffE Feb 5 at 12:27
  • 2
    "Insane" doesn't imply "never happens." I know of a situation where several years' funding was lost through non-delivery of a final report - and the reason was that the author was killed in a road accident a couple of weeks before the deadline, and that was insufficient time for the rest of the group to find the "final version" of work that had already been completed and written up in the guy's somewhat chaotic filing system! – alephzero Feb 5 at 19:16
  • I'll just point out usually obligations with funding are to the institution or advisor. Don't make that a reason to stay - unless your contract that you signed with the school says that as a student you need to pay back funds if you don't complete the degree or project. Such a clause seems borderline criminal to me, but it may exist. – user2699 Feb 6 at 23:45
3

I've never worked on a PhD thesis, or even a Masters degree. I don't know how difficult either are, but I can assume they are extremely difficult, time consuming, and that's why they deserve so much respect. Take a moment to realize that you have already done what most people haven't in getting a Master's degree. Take another moment to understand that you are almost done with something that ever fewer people attempt.

Now the hard part

I've been in the IT industry for over 25 years. I've rarely had a job I liked and I've never had a job I like 100% of the time. Either the managers didn't know what was going on, upper management was clueless, people in general were mean for no reason (including customers), or the project was uninteresting or not in the areas I wanted to work. This, unfortunately, is life. You'll likely be working on things you can't stand more than you work on things you like.

I'm not telling you to "suck it up" or "deal with it", I'm telling you to recognize it now so you can better handle it and work the problem later. You might be stuck in your current project, but later on you'll have more choices.

What I want you to do is to take a step back from your problem, try to understand what it is exactly you hate about the project, and figure out what, if anything, you like about it. Put it all down on "paper", if you have to. Do a pros vs cons worksheet. Get things into order so you know what you're looking at and categorize things so you can understand them. Now work the problem.

Rank those things in order from most important to least, and also rank them in best to worst. Figure out how to minimize your time doing the things you hate, unless they are required, and maximize doing the things you like. I'm not advocating you shirk your responsibilities, but I am advocating you look at things critically and figure out how to improve your situation.

What will help with all of this is figuring out why you feel a certain way about a task. Do you hate working in the units you're required to use (mm vs inch, ml vs oz, whatever). Do you hate a computer language or the tools, or some of your co-workers, the end results of the project, or just exactly whatever it is. Now, do you need to change your mind about something? For example, if you hate working in the metric system, you'll likely need to change your mind, since most engineering is done in metric. If you really dislike someone because of their nagging, is it because they are trying to get you to work to your full potential or are they just a busybody, and if they are the former, are they giving the advice in a positive or negative manner, and if it's positive, are you taking it as constructive criticism or just criticism? There's endless possibilities here and only you can answer all those questions.

For later

Once you get out into the workforce, you'll have more freedom to work on what you like. However, job descriptions aren't always correct, they don't describe how toxic (or not) the work environment is, and they likely won't tell you how all the projects are going to be utilized. And once you start a job, that job description is going to change. It might take years or there might be a drastic change shortly after you join, and maybe that change wasn't something people expected at the time you got hired.

You will need to use the skills you are learning now about undesirable projects to decide if you are going to stay with the company, the department, or if you're going to change jobs. There's always the question of money, but with an advanced degree, you should have a better time with that than most people.

Understand that you have decisions to make, understand the decisions based on the checklist I suggested you make, and then make your decision based on what you can live with.

For now

Getting an advanced degree is a great thing, but it's also a choice. You can continue working on it now, get it out of the way, and push through the negative until you get the results you want. Or you can quit, have a good job, a good life, and maybe take it up again later. But realize that "later" may never come. Even if it does, you might get into that project and not like it either, feeling as if you're wasting your time doing another thing you hate.

It's completely your choice what you do, but I'd suggest you stick this out and finish your doctorate. Get the professional mental help you need, if necessary, which it sounds like you do. There's nothing wrong with getting your mind right and nothing wrong with getting help to do so. Mo Hossny's excellent answer goes into this, so I won't.

What might also help is getting your mind off work. Get a hobby, if you don't already have one, or restart a hobby, if you've put it to the side, and do that instead of thinking about your thesis and your job all the time. Burnout is all too common. It happens all the time in people working a regular "9 to 5" job, and I hear it's also really common in people getting degrees. I got fairly burnt out just trying to get an associates, but that was also while I was working a full time night job. I didn't recognize it at the time, but I also got burnt out trying to get my bachelors degree, and part of the reason I didn't finish it. (Money was the majority of the reason I didn't finish.) I really wish I had finished it. It would have helped me a lot and I wouldn't have had to go back to school for that associates.

Once you get your degree, take some time off. Mo Hossny suggests you take time off now, and I totally agree with that. You'll also need time, once you're done, to get your mind off the project, realign it with your future, and just de-stress in general. Too many people don't take time off work, which leads to being burnt out. They feel they need to always be working or it'll never get done, their job will be on the line, their boss will hate them, or any number of other reasons to fear not doing their job. The thing is, the job will be waiting when they get back, it'll never be done regardless (unless they really are fired), and if their job is so toxic that their employer doesn't want them to take time off, they need to find another job. So take care of yourself. Learn that now and you'll be ahead of the majority of other people.

And the break after your degree doesn't have to be long. It can be 1-2 weeks, or it can be 1-2 months. It depends on your mindset as well as your finances, but only you'll know that and only when it happens, so don't worry about that now. Just look forward to it.

Finally

Again, only you can know what you really want to do. You have to figure out if you're going to stay or if you're leaving. Hopefully I've given you some food for thought on how to figure that out. I also hope I've helped you understand that this is a learning experience in how life works, and to learn from it as well, so you can handle it when it happens in the future, because it will happen again, unfortunately.

I wish you the best! Good luck! And work the problem.

| improve this answer | | | | |
2

Preface: this is narrow focused and might barely be above being a comment, but I feel like it deserves being presented at the very least as a corollary answer to one like @Mo Hossny's.

Consider seeking some professional help

If you are feeling too overwhelmed to make a decision and concerned that you might not be making a sound one in regards to how the situation is making you feel right now, then it can be incredibly helpful to get some help from a related professional, and there's nothing to be ashamed of in doing so. Ideally, find a clinical psychologist. Pay attention to their focus and methodology (for example, if you're more comfortable with the concepts behind cognitive behavioral therapy, seek out someone who practices that). Be prepared for the possibility of not hitting a perfect fit for yourself (and it's fine to ask for a referral if that's the case), but also give things a little time.

My concern is that some of the things you are describing could turn out to be warning signs (this is not an attempt to diagnose you over the internet from a single post, but definitely me saying that if you are feeling like you need help, then please get it), and you may have put yourself in a position where your feelings towards certain aspects of your project are being overrun and confounded by others, and equally may be spilling out into other aspects of your work in general. Particularly if things or aspects of your work which you previously enjoyed or found satisfying no longer are. But even if that's not the case, the situation you are describing is the type that can make it difficult to make a well reasoned decision for anyone, and that's where it can be ideal to have a third party to help work through it with you.

You could continue to work on unraveling this yourself (and there's great advice being given here where you've already reached out for help), but it's also exactly the sort of thing that a psychologist is extremely well suited to help you address, particularly as it relates to helping you pinpoint related feelings and in turn work through your own decision in relation to the options you have.

One way to look at this is that, much like when one pushes through the pain in sports and causes themselves an injury, you may have done something similar by continuing on this to the point where you are now finding it difficult to even do any work at all. Just like there's nothing to be ashamed of when seeking professional medical attention for other areas of your body when they're interfering with your life, there's nothing to be ashamed of with seeking appropriate help when the trouble you're facing is psychological in nature.

Whatever academic choices you make going forward, it's important that you make sure you put yourself in a good place mentally to make those choices in ways that are true to yourself. It sounds like you are overwhelmed and struggling with finding related clarity to work through what choices to make, and that's very much the type of thing that a Psychologist can help you with. It's possible that with some work, you could more narrowly determine what specific aspects of the project are the ones you specifically hate, and either find ways to make them bearable in conjunction with the wider project, or find other avenues to take (which other people have already noted well). If you're concerned about seeking out someone who can relate to your academic predicament, a clinical practicing PsyD or PhD of Psychology is also someone who has been through a rigorous academic and professional process to not only achieve their degree but also their license.

As @Mo Hossny noted, as a student you should be able to seek related counseling through your University's health or counseling services (the one at my University is also more than happy to refer out, if that is a concern), but note that if you are not comfortable with that option for any reason, you can also (in the US) use the APA's locator service or contact your state association for a referral. There are also other avenues for referral, such as your physician (assuming there's someone you see regularly). The APA also has a page dedicated to advice on helping choose a therapist (with a lot of more general related advice/explanations).

| improve this answer | | | | |
1

You haven't explained what your project is. It may be exceptional, but just not to your own personal liking. When you are young it is much harder to appreciate the mundane. You may end up looking back at this and feeling silly for feeling this way

| improve this answer | | | | |
1

Gather information by reading this important book: The Joy of Burnout: How the End of the World Can Be a New Beginning (Dina Glouberman, PhD, 2003).

Essentially, if you don't stop this project, your body will force you to stop.

| improve this answer | | | | |
0

I think this is common for many PhD students. I felt similarly when I was near the end of my PhD. It is so much work, and you give up so much. It can be difficult to maintain your enthusiasm for so many years, in the face of so many rewrites of essentially the same stuff. The thesis process is so iterative. Often, the mundane research process does not match the lofty expectations we had for the project either, due to lack of funding, time, or myriad other reasons. Perhaps you can stick with the project but look at it from a different angle, or add or remove elements to fine tune it more to your liking. Remember, this is just one project and it is subject to various school rules that won't apply to other projects. Once you have your degree you will most likely have more leeway to design your projects as you want, within the guidelines of good/valid research of course. In the end you have to decide what is right for you, but I elected to stick with mine. I put in too much time and money to throw it all out. I am glad I did. I reached my goal of getting my PhD and I now have the experience I need to work on any other project I want.

| improve this answer | | | | |

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.